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Fatherhood in the Mourning Time

J.L. Wall
J.L. Wall
J.L. Wall is an essayist, poet, and teacher living in Michigan. His writing has appeared in First Things, Modern Age, Kenyon Review Online, University Bookman, America, and Arc Digital. You can find him on Twitter at @jl_wall. His daughter's surgery was successful, and she's nearly ready to come home.

To tell you what it’s like to become a father in the Covidtide, I have to use Yiddish. There’s a phrase—it could apply just as well to a hint of the sublime or to comfort food—a tam gan eydn, a taste of Eden. Even offered in enthusiasm, there’s a trace of nostalgia: the memory of different flavors never quite encountered again, the image seen in reverie that can’t be captured precisely on the page. When Proust bites into the madeleine in À la recherche du temps perdu, it’s a tam gan eydn.

My daughter was born in February, while COVID-19 still stalked us in relative silence and before the thaw released a summer’s unrest. Even with my trips to Costco and carloads of diapers, wipes, canned goods, and disinfectants—I would not be caught unawares; our home would be a fortress and I would pace its toilet-paper walls—even then I was too naïve to hear the truth for what it must have been when my mother looked up from her phone with news of a friend back in Florida whose flu hit, turned to pneumonia, required intubation, and killed him within forty-eight hours.

A tam gan eydn, that first month of my daughter’s life: a time before the mourning time.

A tam gan eydn, that first month of my daughter’s life: a time before the mourning time.

***

 

The mourning time. That’s the title, or part of it, of Robert Hayden’s 1970 book of poetry and the sequence at its center. I’d spent January racing through a last round of revisions to a book chapter on his work. Soon enough, I knew, there would be no time to work, maybe even no desire to do so. I peacocked around the English Department in bow ties and told students they were an homage to the lingering presence of Hayden’s ghost in the halls where he once taught. It was only a half-truth, but a good line. Besides, it helped the poetry go down a little easier.

Hayden’s mourning time was the awful spring and summer of 1968. “For King, for Robert Kennedy,” he begins, “for King and Kennedy I mourn. / And for America, self-destructive, self-betrayed”: the riots in Hayden’s Detroit and cities like it; the chaos of the Democratic Convention in Chicago; the Tet Offensive, antiwar protests, and reaction against them; students staring down Soviet tanks in Prague. The god of chaos reigned that summer. Lord Riot, Hayden called him, who danced, singing, “naked / in flaming clothes / cannibal ruler / of anger’s / carousels.”

I found Lord Riot in the newspapers I read in the delivery room, far away in Hong Kong, in Wuhan’s sealed buildings. And I found him again as May turned to June, coming back from the two-day pause of the Shavuot holiday, in the fires that blazed in Louisville, the city where I was born. Hayden spent thirty years trying to make sense of John Brown’s stand at Harper’s Ferry, discarding draft after draft, until the Detroit Institute of Arts asked him to read at an exhibition of paintings of the abolitionist. “Fire harvest: harvest fire,” he settled on in an attempt to make sense of that last stand, recombining two images from Frederick Douglass’s 1881 eulogy for Brown. We were speeding, he insisted, “to that hour / his dead-of-night / sorrows visions prophesied.”

But “John Brown”—a poem to which I’ve devoted more hours of thought, study, and analysis than I’d like to count—only flashed briefly before me. Its words faded and all that remained was that title from a decade earlier: Words in the Mourning Time.

It’s a professional hazard that fragments of poetry float across my mind, one I’ve happily taken on. This was different. Hayden’s title offered no metaphor or commentary on the present, no comfort or shared pain—just a phrase giving the lie to my preferred euphemism for our moment, the Late Unpleasantness, and to the title to the soundtrack I’d assembled to fill the dead air when my classes went online mid-March. Radio Free Michigan, I called it, this compendium of alt-country and midcentury verse—all of it, inescapably, God-haunted. But what I meant—what I wanted to offer them, what I needed to find for myself—was Words in (or if not in, then for) the Mourning Time.

 

***

 

Poetry is a form of contemplation, worship almost, James Matthew Wilson wrote in these pages: a focusing on eternal things through form. Though they’re very different poets, something close to Wilson’s understanding ultimately suffuses Hayden’s work as well. Poetry is “a spiritual act, a form of worship,” he wrote in 1971. Hayden’s Baha’i faith was committed if conflicted, and he found in its texts “no distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ art.” His oeuvre is slim: he would spend a decade and hundreds of drafts on a single poem, a patience I pretend to emulate only in the early, anxious breach. He describes craft and spirit merging, how “efforts to master form and technique are in themselves a kind of prayer.”

Hayden spent his career trying to make sense of the violence of American history: conflict in our homes and wars overseas; slavery, slave rebellions, and Jim Crow terror; the push and pull between humanity and nature, between humanity and human nature. Anger, nihilism, and thirst for power breed violence, he saw—but so too, in his eyes, can the thirst for justice. So too can love.

From the distance of adulthood, “Those Winter Sundays,” one of the great lyrics of the English language, describes the mundane and unseen sacrifices Hayden’s father made for their family. His duties continued “Sundays too”: the labor of fatherhood allows for no Sabbath. But this home was not perfect, the dawn warmth of love’s fires giving way to fear, to “the chronic angers of that house.”

 

***

 

America, Hayden once told an interviewer, is “as much a spiritual idea as it is a physical entity or a geographical unit.” His mourning time, likewise, is as much theological as historical or political. He believed in America’s divinely ordained promise, a destiny to become the world’s “spiritual leader” because, as he put it, with its mix of languages and races and cultures and landscapes, it contains the world. Though he was “no flag-waving patriot,” he believed in the nation’s “peculiar destiny . . . what we may call the new world mystique.”

He could only see glimmers of that destiny in the world around him. Baha’i faith and writings sound caution, he warned: before America fulfills her role there will be a period when “we are going to have to be purged of our weaknesses—our old-world sickness.” The mourning time, that is—with an end he could not foresee. But prophecy wasn’t the purpose of poetry, not his poetry, which refracts its subjects through verse, from Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass through Bessie Smith, Malcolm X, and the characters of his childhood, and freezes them, gemlike fragments to hold and turn round in your palm.

“I bear Him witness now,” Hayden repeats three times in the find section of “Words in the Mourning Time”—not to the godhead itself but “the covenant of timelessness with time,” the meaning he believed (he hoped) lay inevitably behind “our history in its disastrous quest.”

I admire Hayden as a craftsman; I’m drawn to the religious yearning that courses even through those works that gaze on modernity’s horrors or that find grace and beauty unexpectedly amid more mundane hypocrisy. But I can’t subscribe to this vision of history or this theodicy. I am, after all, a Jew. Judaism contains an idea of the mourning time, a second calendar that runs in counter-voice to the sequence of festivals that, like Passover, celebrate and enact redemption. It ticks off fast days as the Temple’s destruction approaches in the late-summer month of Av, the first of these falling, with a dull thud of inevitability, the day after Rosh Hashana. God has been crowned King again, but we can’t step off this pattern of godforsakenness.

But Tisha B’Av and the minor fasts before it are like Passover in this: the story they tell lies in the past, commanded not as metaphor for present or future, but memory of what has already been. Suffering is not redemption—that theodicy would be too simple. In the world to come, Judaism teaches, Tisha B’Av will transform from a fast to a festival. Until then, the festivals punctuate redemption while mourning times punctuates history.

In the world to come, Judaism teaches, Tisha B’Av will transform from a fast to a festival. Until then, the festivals punctuate redemption while mourning times punctuates history.

 

***

 

With an infant in your arms, history hardly matters.

My daughter smiles and learns. She kicks in the bath and gums at the roast vegetables we give her at suppertime. She grabs, always, for my glasses and settles for fistfuls of my hair, grown far too long. She laughs and babbles and screams.

And how she screams. It was the first thing the nurses commented on, the strength of her lungs. I could only hear this through the partial logic of a negative theology: not the force of her lungs but the weakness of her heart. We already knew this. The hole between chambers, the constricted valves—they’d all been clear from twenty weeks when the ultrasound tech grew silent and focused with agonizing repetition on a small, cross-cut cylinder, an illegible swirl of blues and reds I’ve since learned, in a rudimentary way, to read.

Before she was born, before she was named, I learned there were things from which I could never protect her.

Her ultrasound pictures are near me now, tucked in a pile of medical records beside my desk. We kept them spread on a squat living-room bookshelf until actual photographs could replace them, long scrolls like photonegatives. For months, I feared these would be the only pictures of her I would ever have.

She screamed the night she was born, and the cardiology nurses wanted to wheel her away from us for an echocardiogram. My wife was exhausted, barely awake. I was bewildered and followed my daughter’s voice. They pushed her down the corridor then changed their minds and we came back to the delivery room, the machine they needed trailing behind. Midnight passed. She lay naked in the hospital bassinet, screaming and screaming against the cold and the pressure of an ultrasound probe on her chest.

My fatherhood began behind plexiglass, hearing my daughter crying out, crying out, crying out—listening, helpless.

 

***

 

Those first weeks of pandemic time gave me what I’d longed for since September: the fantasy of control. I’d had so little: nothing I did, from one day to the next, would alter how my daughter grew in the womb—or could protect her from the playing out of genetic code my wife and I had bequeathed her. I was—and still am—powerless before the priest-like expertise of her surgeon.

But in the Covidtide, actions once more had consequences. I could take risks or not. I could cancel my classes or not. I could wear a mask or not, wear gloves or not, wash my hands or not. I could choose which role to perform for my students. I could spend the first weeks of March, alert to the danger drifting our way, making Costco and grocery runs, stockpiling dry goods and filling our freezer. I could sterilize the groceries dropped by store workers in the trunk of my car, wipe and wash them piece by piece, an hour-long unloading that quickly grew divorced from science. It’s just part of Friday now—and I haven’t cared for some time whether it’s necessary.

All these routines and fantasies of control—they let me feel, for the first time, like I could safeguard my family, like I could behave as a father. They were fantasies of control that let me ignore what I still couldn’t affect: the open-heart surgery she needs that was, in the war-zone weeks of March and April, “nonessential” and therefore impossible to schedule; the fear that when it comes, I’ll need to wait at home, alone, while she recovers in the hospital.

The first Passover—the night before the exodus—marked the advent of a mourning time. God swept through Egypt—God and not an angel, God and not a messenger, the text of the Haggadah insists—and took the firstborn of every household, of every stable. It’s also a literary curiosity, a central narrative moment the Bible elides, narrating not as history but only in the future-tense instructions to paint the lintels of their doorposts with the blood of a lamb. But as a night of silence and terror, the Israelites praying that their God really would protect them after so many centuries of silence: the record speaks nothing of this, or of how many fantasies of control that night shattered—and how few it confirmed.

But what an act of faith this was, to believe blood bright red on the doorposts could save them—and what acts of faith these are, all our routines of precaution, all my habits of fatherhood.

 

***

 

February was a tam gan eydn, and yet the mourning time had already begun. When I’d wake in those first few weeks of fitful newborn sleep to take the morning shift, I found that I couldn’t hold her as I read the news from Italy. So I cradled her in hands already cracked and aching from hand sanitizer and constant washing, rocked her to sleep, and laid her down in the bassinet so I could turn back to news of the world I couldn’t escape.

“What did I know, what did I know / Of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Outside, Michigan’s blueblack cold crept toward dawn. By noon, hundreds of grackles would descend on the lawn, shrieking and tearing at everything that might be used to build their nests: grass, twigs broken from trees by passing fronts, mud and leaves revealed by the snow’s thaw, the lining of my garden beds.

When I looked at her, I trembled, Hayden-haunted: “What did I know, what did I know / Of love’s austere and lonely offices?”